In a study published yesterday in Science, researchers have found that a certain type of virus could cause a person’s immune system to overreact to gluten, leading to celiac disease. Researchers led by Bana Jabri said the immune system was still maturing in the first year of life.“Getting a particular virus at that time can leave a kind of scar that has long term consequences,” Professor Jabri said. “This study shows that a virus that is not clinically symptomatic can still do bad things to the immune system and set the stage for an auto-immune disorder, coeliac disease in particular.”“For those genetically predisposed to coeliac disease, the combination of an intestinal reovirus infection with the first exposure to gluten could create the right conditions for developing the disease,” the university said.The findings follow a study last year linking various viruses to coeliac disease, and help explain why gastrointestinal infections can lead to the condition. “We are now in a position to precisely define the viral factors responsible,” Professor Jabri said.Coeliac disease is caused by an abnormal immune response to gluten, a protein found in grains such as wheat, rye, barley and oats that damages the small bowel and affects food absorption. This can result in health problems. The abnormal immune response to gluten causes damage to the small bowel when the tiny, finger-like projections lining the bowel, called villi, become inflamed and flattened. This is called villous atrophy and it reduces the available surface area of the bowel to absorb nutrients from food. The research suggests an infection with a common strain of reovirus, which is often symptomless, could be behind why some people’s immune systems react to gluten as if it were a dangerous pathogen instead of a harmless food protein.The research found mice engineered to be genetically susceptible to gluten intolerance who were infected with the reovirus strain T1L went on to have an immune response against gluten. The virus in question is so harmless that people often don’t even realise they have been infected, according to researchers who worked on the study.However if the first exposure to a food with gluten occurs during a reovirus infection, the virus may turn the immune system against the food protein, researchers found.The immune system can either allow foreign substances, such as food proteins, to pass through the body peacefully, or it can go on the attack.
In people with coeliac disease, the protein gluten is treated like a harmful pathogen. The immune system response damages the lining of the small intestine, causing symptoms like bloody diarrhoea.The researchers said they do not think that the T1L reovirus, which was used in the study, is the only virus that can stimulate coeliac disease.Future research will analyse the potential of other viruses and also determine whether T1L was a true trigger of the disease in humans. If it is, then a reovirus vaccine could be developed for at-risk children, which could potentially block the development of the disease, researchers added.According to experts, coeliac disease affects people of all ages and gender, but you must be born with a genetic predisposition to the disease for it to develop. Environmental factors then play an important role in triggering the disease. This can happen at any age from infancy to adulthood. It is very important to be properly diagnosed with coeliac disease by a doctor because it is a serious medical condition that affects people for their whole life. Coeliac disease is an important cause of gluten sensitivity.Any thoughts you may have coeliac disease don’t stop eating foods that contain gluten until after you have been diagnosed as stopping gluten means the tests are unreliable according to the research findings. Diagnosis involves blood tests and a small bowel biopsy. Coeliac disease can’t be cured, but it can be controlled with a strict, lifelong gluten free diet. If coeliac disease is not well controlled it can lead to complications such as infertility, chronic poor health, depression and teeth problems. However, early diagnosis and treatment of coeliac disease significantly reduces the risk of most complications ever occurring.Patients with the excess antibodies also overproduced a protein implicated in gluten intolerance. No doubt researchers findings point to a vicious combination of virus and suspect genes.The significance of this work is that it provides a mechanism for how virus infection might actually trigger the disease. As a person who has several friends suffering from this condition, no doubt in my mind that the research raises a possibility that infections such as this might be underlying a range of abnormal immune responses to other food proteins or even causing other autoimmune diseases.I can only hope this new findings can lead to a vaccine.